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Irish Whiskey: Malted, Unmalted, and Bourbon (Second in a three-part series on whiskey.)

Sausages made with whiskey

Last time, I talked about my love of whiskey, that toe-warming elixir with its dry/sweet/spicy qualities, and I focused on Scotch whisky (Scottish spelling). Today, I’ll talk about its Irish cousin.

In making Irish whiskey, both malted and unmalted barley are often mashed with a smattering of wheat, oats, and rye. And, unlike Scotch, the wash is triple instead of double distilled. In most cases, the result is an easy going whiskey that’s a drink as amenable as the Irish themselves.

Three distilleries in the Republic collaborated to form Irish Distillers: Jameson (Irleland’s biggest seller), Powers, and Midleton. The trio produces the lion’s share of the country’s whiskey and is located at New Midleton, in County Cork.

Northern Ireland is home to only Bushmills, which produces both unaged and aged single malts. Cooley, the country’s small independent distillery, is known for Tyrconnell and Connemara Single Peated Malt, which is double-distilled, peat-fired like many Scotches, and aged in white oak casks like Bourbon to produce a smoky, mossy, and robust whiskey.

The website also cites Ireland’s independent bottlings (not the same as independent distilleries). Probably the most familiar are Tullamore Dew, and Kilbeggan.

Red Breast 12-Year pot-still is always in my cupboard owing to its reasonable price, and nuanced honey, briny, and sherry flavors. Then there’s Midleton Very Rare, whose earth, caramel, and fruits float beautifully across the palate. Of course, whiskey this elegant doesn’t come cheap. Don’t dare muddle with it.

For a little fun on a frosty night, go astray with an Irish coffee–not the premade stuff. Good Irish coffee requires a good roast, double cream that’s very lightly whipped, and a steady hand. Pour freshly brewed coffee into a glass mug. Add 2 teaspoons demerara sugar, and stir until dissolved. Add 1 and 1/2 ounces Irish whiskey. Pour the cream over the back of a silver spoon onto the coffee so that it floats atop the coffee (okay this is the fiddly bit). Sprinkle a few grains of coffee on top of the cream and savor.

Whiskey made in a pot

Over the years, whiskey making hasn’t changed much. It’s still made in pot stills like this one.

God Bless America

No longer associated with rough and rugged corn liquor swigged from a crock by wild west cowpokes, Bourbon is now considered a classy, sassy, and sophisticated whiskey sipped (okay, occasionally swigged) in elegant bars and posh lounges. This is due, in large part to better made stuff, but also thanks to good ole’ marketing.

Well-crafted Bourbon can be a thing of beauty—at once powerful and elegant—like a fine French burgundy, but unlike Scotch Bourbon has corn as the main grain, and is single distilled. Depending on brand and batch, its sweet spirit can give way to any or all of spice, citrus, caramel, and cream.

The new face of bourbon has had quite a bit of press. I read recently, two fine articles. In “New-Old Bourbon (Atlantic Monthly, December 1999), food writer Cory Kummer brackets his discourse on bourbon with culinary allusions. He begins by likening the early stages of producing bourbon to making sourdough bread and ends with bourbon desserts. Meanwhile, Eric Asimov’s “Bourbon’s Shot at the Big Time” (NY Times Nov 2007) delves into bourbon’s burgeoning premium styles. Both writers entertain and enlighten and elaborate on whiskey’s salient points: One, that not all American Whiskey is bourbon (Jack Daniels Tennessee sour mash, for instance, is, unlike bourbon, charcoal-filtered before barreling.) Two: bourbon must contain at least 51% corn. The percentage of other grains permitted such as rye, wheat, or barley influences strongly each brand’s style and taste. Three: all bourbon is aged in new white oak, charred casks. Four: bourbon can be distilled as high as 160 proof, but lawmakers insist that it be diluted to 125 proof before hitting the vat.

Scotch whisky

Whiskey makes a great ingredient in mixed drinks.

My favorite cocktail is a perfect bourbon Manhattan—called “perfect” for its half and half measure of sweet and dry vermouths. I stay away from top drawer single-batch bottles, such as Booker’s, Baker’s, or Basil Hayden’s. Maker’s Mark works very well, although I prefer the bold flavors of Bulleit or Knob Creek.

I also like to riff on the classic Manhattan recipe (2 oz. bourbon, ½ oz each of dry and sweet vermouth, and a dash of Angostura bitters, swirled with ice and served with a maraschino). I lean more toward dry vermouth (Noilly Prat please), orange bitters (look for Fee Brother’s or other artisan bitters such as Bittered Sling in B.C.), and a lemon twist.

And if you’re serving it in summer, the season’s dog days beg for a mint julep—that refreshing concoction mint sprigs, sugar, whiskey, and water. –Story and photos by Julie Pegg, RFT Wine Editor Canada

Read Julie’s other columns on whiskey:

“Canadian Whisky: beer, back-bacon, plaid shirts, puck, toques, rye whisky, eh?”

“Scotch Whisky: A Winter Toe-Warmer”


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Julie Pegg, RFT Contributor

Julie Pegg has been writing about food, wine, and spirits for 15 years. She was a product consultant for 14 of her 24 years working for the British Columbia Liquor Board in Vancouver. She still keeps her hand in (and elbow firmly bent) at Dundarave Wine Cellars in West Vancouver, British Columbia. Julie is also a keen amateur cook who loves culinary travel. Farmers’ markets and wine shops are always her first stop.